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California's Governor Faces Criticism Over Drought-Relief Policies

Even Governor Jerry Brown says the measures don't address the state's "archaic" system of allocating water resources.
Photo by Rich Pedroncelli/AP

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Four years into a multibillion dollar drought, considered by some scientists to be the the worst in a millenium, California's governor faces pushback against his recently-announced, first-ever mandatory water restrictions.

Governor Jerry Brown's April 1st executive order came with a startling announcement about California's snowpack. Crucial for the state's water supply, it stood at just 5 percent of normal. His order mandates cities and towns to reduce water use by 25 percent, but omitted restrictions for California's agricultural sector, which guzzles 80 percent of the state's water supply.


Brown met in Sacramento with business interests on Thursday after his government received over 200 letters commenting on the proposed cuts. Correspondence came from cities, water utilities, and businesses. Not all were critical, but some questioned the level of mandatory reductions and the reliability of statistics guiding them. Some simply called them unfair.

Jonas Minton, the Planning and Conservation League's water policy advisor and a former senior state water official, said Brown shouldn't "pick on any particular sectors," but highlighted the particularly egregious impact of the state's agricultural sector.

"In this drought the public is willing to do its share, if it believes the burden is being shared equally," Minton told VICE News. "But when they're being asked to rip out their lawns, they're wondering why mega corporations are able to plant more water-intensive crops. … The first rule of holes is that when you're in one, stop digging."

Related: California's governor issues mandatory water cuts — except for farmers

California grows 43 percent of the nation's fruits, nuts, and vegetables and more than 90 percent of its almonds, grapes, and broccoli.

Peter Gleick, director of the Pacific Institute, an independent research group working on water issues, isn't surprised Brown has faced opposition.

"It's hard to do anything in California with water without getting pushback. Water is so intensely political in part because it's increasingly scarce, with or without a drought," Gleick told VICE News. "I've been here a long time and politics is the defining characteristic of our water challenge."


Gleick explained an "awkward system" for water allocation that "depends on hundred-year-old decisions."

There are senior and junior water rights holders, determined by whether the rights claim was made before or after 1914 — and when drought strikes the juniors are cut off first. The complicated legal and institutional system is "hard for the governor or the state agencies to fiddle with," Gleick said.

It's easier, in other words, to ask water agencies to adjust deliveries or prices, or to regulate water use for tasks like outdoor landscaping, than to radically influence farming choices.

In an interview earlier this month with ABC's "This Week," Brown acknowledged those senior rights holders, but opened the door to review long-held policies.

"Some people have a right to more water than others. That's historic. That's built into the legal framework of California," Brown said. "If things continue at this level, that's probably going to be examined, but as it is, we do live with a somewhat archaic water law situation."